By: J. Dale Weaver, M.Div., M.A.
3 January, 2021
It was early 1987 when Jim Bakker’s sins were exposed for the world to see. I was a Senior in College, just called into Ministry, and I’d never been a big fan of Jim Bakker. His scandal with Jessica Hahn, and then the alleged financial misdealings that got him arrested and imprisoned brought down the PTL ministry. At the time, I thought it was a necessary purging of an exceptionally deceptive Ministry personality. As a young Christ-follower, I had great confidence that the vast majority of Church Leaders were worthy of the trust I had in them. And those who were not, I thought, I could discern.
I should have seen through that a year later when Jimmy Swaggart, an Assembly of God Evangelist whom I did respect, was also caught up in a scandal. His defiance of the AoG restoration process and move out on his own – subsequently leading to more scandals – was not surprising to me. I was “wise” to him, at that point. Still, I was trusting of the vast majority of Church Leaders.
I shouldn’t have been.
I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church. I was familiar with the cultural milieu of Evangelicalism, with the “heroes” of the faith, as it were. And in my childhood days, calling the name “Billy Graham” was like calling the name of Moses. I was saved at age 15, and by the time I arrived at college, I was a warrior in the battle for the re-taking of the Southern Baptist Convention from Liberals (so-called “Moderates”), which had started in 1979. Four years on, when I arrived on campus, I was a part of the small Conservative crew of Christians who understood the importance, the necessity, of the essential doctrines of the faith, and of the requisite high view of the inspiration of Scripture. I have no regrets, to this day, for the convictions God led me to embrace as a young follower of Jesus. I remain devoted to every one of those distinctives.
When I finished College and entered ministry, I began in the Southern Baptist Church, but shortly shifted to the Free Will Baptist Church, due to particular doctrinal distinctives I held. It was among them that I was licensed and ordained. I spent nearly 16 years among 2 different Free Will Baptist denominational fellowships. Therein lies a clue as to the nature of the issues plaguing the Church today, but those details are for another time. Three Pastorates in three states, three Church staffs, three denominations…..
I had the good grace of the Lord to allow me to separate my calling and Orders (or Credentials) from any denomination in 2003, when I was “Ordained” (again) by the Evangelical Church Alliance, an international non-denominational ministry fellowship. Happily, my credentials were no longer subject to the whims of denominational politics and mischief. But in that period between late 2001 and 2003, I endured a period of deep introspection and struggle. I questioned everything. I questioned my own faith itself. I found, thankfully, that Christ is ever-faithfully. That God is always there, even when we don’t see Him, or understand. I hold on to that to this day.
However, the way I understood the Church was transformed forever. For long stretched during those two years, I didn’t “attend” Church at all. I DID make it my intentional practice to meet, regularly, with Christian friends, Brothers in Christ, for fellowship, discussion, prayer. I did not “forsake” the assembling of myself with other believers, though I didn’t attend a local Church every Sunday.
In my thinking, and in my writings, I began to understand something that, even until now, has remained with me. I looked at “The Church” on earth, differently than I ever had before.
Oh, I’d always been taught in all the Churches I’d been a part of that there was a “Spiritual Body of Christ” made up of all believers, no matter what “church” they attended, and there was the “Local Church,” which was the physical manifestation of the “Body of Christ.” And, of course, different denominations saw that relationship different ways, and practiced different sorts of polity or Church Government, but the basic premise remained.
During these years, however, my view of the physical Church, the Church on earth, the visible manifestation of the Church – whether it was as a local body, or as a denominational structure, or even as a “para-church ministry” – changed enormously. The name I began to identify the “earthly church” by, was the “Made-With-Hands Church.” Paul noted in Hebrews 9:11 that “Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation.” Some would say I’d become jaded. Others would declare I’d become downright cynical. Still others would upbraid me for being so sarcastic.
I plead guilty to each and every charge. My experiences in the “Made-with Hands” Church have jaded me. The things I have seen done – in the Name of Christ – have made me cynical. The sins of the people who claim the name of Christ – draw from me a deep-seated and (I believe) wholly justified sarcasm toward the “Made-with-Hands” Church.
Recently, there has been a plethora of new Church “scandals” that have plagued the Evangelical movement of Protestantism in particular, though “Christendom” as a whole is ravaging itself as an “institution” in world culture. The Devil need not do anything to harm the cause of Christ. The Church is doing that quite effectively enough itself. But as these new spiritual plagues of infidelity, iniquity, and avarice are discovered throughout the “Organized Church,” its “Institutions” and various “Ministries,” and as we’ve watched headliners from pulpits to praise leaders to “Christian entertainers” disown God, deny Truth, and depart from the faith and become apostate… What are we to conclude? How are believers to navigate these storms?
There are several facts we cannot deny.
FIRST, Christ called out his Church, He meant for it to be visible on the earth. We have a Great Commission to fulfill. We have the Great Commandments to keep. We have the ministry to be SALT AND LIGHT to the world! These truths cannot be denied – and those who deny them fail to understand and embrace the Biblical mission of the “Ekklesia” of God fully.
SECOND, however, we must recognize our own wretchedness as humans. We can’t – no, I CAN’T – point my finger at a Jim Bakker, or a Jimmy Swaggart or – how about a Ravi Zacharias? I can’t point to them and say, “They’re worthy of judgment,” when I know, in myself, that I’m guilty, too. I’m a sinner. I’ve failed Jesus. In thought, word and deed, I have utterly failed. And but for the grace of God, I could fall into the traps these men – or so many others have.
THIRD, something is profoundly WRONG about how we “do Church” now. I’m not specifically referring to how we worship or how we dress or how we preach or how we pray, though all those things could be affected by or result from, a completely errant understanding of what it MEANS to BE – CHURCH. That’s it. Which is better – to DO, or to BE?
I’ve found that, in my experience, when I am myself, and I do what naturally comes to me, I can DO pretty well with the things I am supposed to do, the things that are a part of me. To BE – is to LIVE OUT a life of DOING – because it is who you ARE. There are a lot of people who “Do Church” on Sunday and they “Did Saturday night at the bar” and they “Did Friday Night at a Keg party on the Lake.”
Christians – we ARE the Church. Stop just “doing,” and BE the Church. That’s the first admonition I come to in thinking through all this MESS that has become the failing, flailing, gasping, dying “Evangelical” Church of our day.
Maybe it’s time we step away from all that “doing,” and get quiet before God, and ask Him, anew – how do you want me to BE your Church, Lord? The answer you get may not fit the mold of the “Made-with-Hands” Church of today. But, who are you serving – Men, or God?
We MUST begin to seriously, circumspectly, examine WHO we are as Christ Followers, and WHAT we are as “the Church,” and then re-orient ourselves to BE His Church. That’s what He called, commissioned, gifted and empowered us for!
“And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
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